canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: John Miller

John Millerís second novel is A Sharp Intake of Breath (The Dundurn Group, 2007). His first novel, The Featherbed, was published to critical acclaim in 2002. When he is not writing novels, Miller works as a consultant for various non-profit and NGO organizations specializing in international aid projects.

RM Vaughan interviewed John Miller at a Toronto cafť in late January 2007, days before the official launch of A Sharp Intake of Breath.

John Miller's website:


TDR: The hero of your new novel is a child born with a cleft pallet, a deformity. What drew you to the subject of deformity, aberration?

JM: I was looking to write a book about someone who had been misjudged, because of who they were or how they looked. The notion of beauty, and what constitutes the dominant standards of beauty, has always interested me, so when I started to research various kinds of conditions I happened upon the condition of cleft pallet, and learned what those kids go through. People with cleft pallets are often not only judged because they look different, but kids with cleft pallets are also often read as being developmentally delayed.

TDR: Really? I didnít know that. Whatís the connection?

JM: Itís not as prevalent as it once was, but that prejudice existed, and still exists, partly because of the way cleft pallet kids sound and speak, which was associated with developmental disabilities. There are certain disabilities sometimes associated with cleft pallet, but for kids who are not developmentally delayed, itís often hard to shed that stigma.

TDR: Did you actually talk to cleft pallet kids?

JM: I talked to adults who had grown up with cleft pallets. I shared some early versions of the novel with them and posted some sections on my website and I got several emails from parents of cleft pallet children, and most of them said Iíd really hit the nail on the head. I think they are starved for writing about the condition.

TDR: So, youíre cornering the cleft pallet market?

JM: There must be some market out there for me! But, to be serious, I did research at the Sick Kids hospital, with the cleft pallet team. They were really helpful. I met with a retired doctor who was able to give me lots of information on early 20th century surgery techniques and from there I went to the U of T dentistry library and found some great texts about surgery practices from the last century.

TDR: That leads to the history question. Like your first novel, this book moves back and forth in time, from early 20th century Toronto to the present, and the role of memory is thoroughly explored. Do you come from one of those "scrapbook" families, where family history is lovingly preserved?

JM: Yes, I do. None of my stories are about my family, but the environment I grew up in was full of my grandparentsí stories about Toronto in the 40s and 50s. My grandparents moved in leftist circles, amongst people in the Communist Party of Canada, and many of those women were involved in the second wave of feminism Ė so, thereís lots of good material. What intrigues me is the history of their intellectual development Ė what kinds of things did they talk about, read, how was their thinking shaped? How people become who they are, and the influence of their times, fascinates me.

TDR: So, were you taken to that famous summer camp that every kid I know from a Toronto Jewish leftist family was taken to, that commune in Brampton?

JM: Camp Naivelt! No, no, but I know the one you mean. Somehow I escaped that formative moment.

TDR: Letís talk about your research process. As an historical novelist, how much do you rely on archival materials and how much do you make up?

JM: Both. With this novel I was lucky to be writing about a period that people who are still alive remember. I did a number of interviews with people in their 80s and 90s. That was amazing, to hear their first hand accounts, to find a context outside of academic sources. As far as being an historical novelist goes, I just hope I can paint an accurate enough picture that the reader will fill in the details with his or her imagination. But at some point, of course, I have to just fill in the unknowable gaps, add details of my own.

TDR: Your characters, especially your heroes, are often required to perform tremendous acts of courage. This courage that you obviously admire so much, how does it manifest itself in your own life? In what areas are you courageous, apart from being a Canadian novelist?

JM: One is never prepared for the moments when courage is required. In my life Iíve been ready for those moments and not ready. But on some occasions Iíve been able to make good decisions that Iím able to live with Ė not through any sort of virtue or anything noble Ė but Iíve been able to ask myself the question: Can I live with this decision? And, so far, Iíve said yes.

TDR: Most people donít have that well articulated a moral compass. I sure donít. Likewise, your characters typically have very clear ideas about what they will or will not do. Where does this concern about morality come from, and I mean morality in a larger sense, not the "good behaviour" sense?

JM: Well, when people read the novel hopefully theyíll see that even though some characters appear very certain about their actions, the motivations behind their actions are not so black and white Ö. I guess I feel that stories about moral choices are the kinds of stories I understand, but, on the other hand, such stories have to be done in a way that serves the characters, not the question. When I first started writing this book I wanted to write about moral courage, but I got some good advice from my agent: focus on the story and let the critics parse out the morals and themes. The characters have to be human and real or their quandaries wonít be interesting.

TDR: How has your work with non-profits and aid agencies influenced the kinds of subjects youíve explored as a novelist?

JM: Well, itís provided me with insight into the lives of marginalized people and outsiders, and those issues will always be a part of my writing.

TDR: Why? Do you feel like a marginalized person?

JM: Sometimes, sure, but to be frank I come from a lot of privilege, and Iím aware of that. The challenge is to stay aware of my own privilege and to have empathy for others. I might at times have been marginalized as a gay man, but, letís face it, being gay in Toronto today is not hard.

TDR: No, itís just hard to stay awake.

JM: Tell me about it.







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